Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds Sown in Chelsea

01/09/2012 10:35 AM |

Up close with Ais sunflower seeds at Mary Boone Gallery.

  • Up close with Ai’s sunflower seeds at Mary Boone Gallery.

On Saturday Chelsea’s Mary Boone Gallery unveiled its installation of Ai Weiwei‘s “Sunflower Seeds” (2010), which in its original presentation covered nearly the entire floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Here the installation is necessarily much smaller—five tons, according to a press release (PDF)—with the hand-painted ceramic seeds piled a couple inches high in a rectangular shape at the center of the gallery.

Though visitors to the Tate were originally encouraged to walk across the sculpture, the museum was later

advised that the interaction of visitors with the sculpture can cause dust which could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow members of the public to walk across the sculpture.

Likewise, visitors to Mary Boone are not allowed to walk on the ceramic sunflower seeds, and though there’s no rope surrounding the installation to bar them from doing so, a security guard (see below) is keeping watch at all times.

Logistics and lung problems aside, the decision to install “Sunflower Seeds” in the center of the room, surrounded on all sides by open floor space—rather than stretching from one wall to the other, as it did at the Tate—takes away from the impact of the piece, both in terms of sheer volume of materials and in the awe of seeing the outcome of so many hours of accumulated human labor.

Each of the life-size seeds (100 million in the original installation, several million here) was produced by hand by artisans in Jingdezhen, a city in northern China that has been a center of porcelain production for centuries. An integral part of the sculpture’s meaning derives from the way its boundless immensity signifies China’s massive labor force—if Damien Hirst had made it, it would be titled “The Physical Impossibility of Chinese World Domination in the Mind of Someone from the West”—and that connotation is significantly diminished here.

On the other hand, the installation’s bright lighting and polished floor make it easy to concentrate on individual seeds and appreciate the excruciating level of detail that’s gone into each one. Still, I left Mary Boone wondering what had happened to the other 90-something million porcelain seeds.

Ai Weiwei’s “Sunflower Seeds” installation is on view at Mary Boone Gallery through February 4.

At left, the sunflower seeds security guard.

  • At left, the sunflower seeds’ security guard.

Follow Benjamin Sutton on Twitter @LMagArt